the Reality of Fear

scared

Admit it, you love being afraid. But only so long as you can control the fear, channel it in just the right doses.

You love the idea of fear, the way it grips your heart, thickens your blood, and gives you a rush of adrenaline. Fear like this, it helps us escape life, if just briefly, get out of our own heads.

When I was married years ago, my (then) wife and I went on a double date with another couple, Adam and Mary, a blonde-haired and blue-eyed Mormon couple with three kids under five at home. We paid money to go to a haunted amusement park experience, something called Scarywood, one where all the lanes, alleys, and roller coasters had been decorated in frightening images. People in costume hid behind walls, jumping out to say ‘Boo’, and everyone screamed. Our friend Mary was tiny, thin and slight, and thus, perhaps, the easiest target for the teenagers in costumes, continually screamed and then would immediately scold the person who scared her. “Rarrrr!” yelled the ghost girl, the 15 year-old underpaid student in grey and white make-up. “Eeeeek!” yelled Mary as she threw her hands up, then she immediately got a stern Mom-look on her face as she pointed at the ghost-girl and exclaimed “How could you! Does your mother know you’re here!” And we all laughed and laughed and waited for the next person to jump out.

But was it funny? I think back to this isolated experience and the actual things we witnessed. A section of the park had dozens of fake clown corpses, hanging on ropes from the ceiling, and you had to push the bodies aside in order to walk through. In another section, a man stood over a fire and pretended to cook humans in a pot, then when you walked close, he rushed at you with a chainsaw as everyone in the party screamed and fled.

There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there capitalizing on these fears. Companies design realistic make-up to give children leprous sores on their faces so they can stagger around as zombies, they design realistic severed heads with bugged out eyes and knife marks on the neck where the red plastic blood drips out and the bones protrude, they build withered corpses to sit up from coffins as maniacal laughter plays from the ground.

Why do we love it so much, being scared, these chemical rushes in our bodies? Why is it customary to walk my children in the grocery store to buy a bag of apples and to pass an aisle full of plastic rats and spiders, vampire fangs and fake blood? Why do we put millions of our hard-earned dollars toward the latest scary movie franchise, about teenage witches and killer clowns and mass-murdering dream monsters and vengeful devil spirits? If I asked you to name 25 scary movies off the top of your head, you could. Easily. Because we have been making them for decades, and we love them.

I get that there is suspension of disbelief there, something that is just outside of reality and thus we remain safe, and that’s why I say we like to control the fear. We like knowing we can go home afterward and lock our doors and climb under our blankets. But we are titillated by reality as well. We latch ourselves on to serial biopics of serial killers and serial rapists, mass shootings and gruesome medical conditions. When we hear someone committed suicide, we don’t generally ask ‘Are you okay?’ first to the bearer of the news, instead we ask ‘How did they do it?’ We simply must know. And then we retreat to the safety of our lives again afterwards.

Real fear, though, that is something else entirely. Fear comes in all kinds of shades. Fear is associated with loneliness, love, anger, sadness, joy, depression. Fear is tied to worry, to unease, to suspicion, angst, panic, and dread. It’s tied to despair, stagnancy, apprehension, and excitement. There are clinical terms for fear of everything, phobias of heights, of teeth, of hair, of small spaces, of blood, of blades, of elevators. Fear of bathing, fear of babies, fear of falling sleep.

We say we love being afraid, but I don’ think we do. Real fear, the stuff that shuts us down, well, it’s really, truly scary.

Maybe I’ll make a scary movie one day about fear. Real actual fear. In this movie, an old woman sits in the park, and she invites people to experience their truly greatest fear for just $20. Anyone who pays her simply shakes her hand, looks into her eyes, and for one full minute lives their truly greatest fear. These wouldn’t be ghost hunts and werewolves, these fears would be deeply rooted in human insecurity, family and personal history, and in relationships, and they would be truly terrifying. One woman would be cornered in her room, like she was as a child, with her uncle closing in telling her that she could never tell anyone about what he did to her. One man might find out his mother had breast cancer all over again, and he would have to watch her suffer for years only to lose her. A father might go in to check on his baby and find her dead, suddenly, and they would never find out why. A young girl might go to high school and see a man with a gun enter and begin killing her friends. A woman may discover that her husband was lying to her, cheating on her all the time, and he never loved her, never found her attractive. A man might go bankrupt, be homeless, and die alone on the streets.

Real fears, the abject deep and personal ones, are not capitalized on. Fears of abandonment, bankruptcy, cancer, and trauma, of losing our loved ones, of being assaulted, of having our belief systems shattered, of growing old, of never measuring up or being enough. You don’t see these for sale in grocery stores.

I’ve learned to embrace my fears as part of me. They help drive me. They are deeply connected to every other emotion. And I will always have fear. My greatest fears change along with me, every birthday bringing with it a new set of things to be afraid of. And just like anyone, I can enjoy a good scary film, a nice suspense thriller, or a book that leaves me eagerly turning the pages to see what comes next. But real fear, well, the older I get, the less funny it all is. Most people are truly afraid of the things they have already experienced. And in that, I’m proud to say, I’ve faced a lot of my fears and walked out the other side, resilient. But there is still so much to be afraid of…

 

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In Monster Life

27858291_10160117274245061_4633234525172819479_n“Dad!” A, my 6-year old son, bounded into the room with excitement. “I forgot to tell you! At school today, I was designing a brand new game to play! It’s going to be epic!”

I turned toward him with genuine excitement. I loved when he got this excited. “Oh yeah? Let me see it!”

He put his hands on his hips and looked up at me with a half-roll of his eyes. “You can’t see it yet. It’s still up here in my head. I didn’t actually design it yet.”

“Oh, pardon me, then tell me about it.”

A began talking animatedly. “Okay, so you know how people love fighting games, like Injustice or like that Pokemon fighting game, or, like Mortal Kombat. This is one of those games except it is full of monsters. I’m going to call it In Monster Life!”

He paused dramatically, and I gave a ‘Whoa’ sound.

For the next several minutes, A followed me around the kitchen, telling me about the different monsters he would design, and how they would all have different skills and special moves. I could tell he was making some of it up as he went, but his rich stories had always been rich with details, and he never forgot them once he spoke them out loud. I had always called him my little story-teller. He was brilliant at coming up with original ideas, and he put so much drama into his stories, using voices and inflections. He’d been doing it since he was two, and I constantly wondered how this talent would blossom when he grew up. I’d gotten my story-telling skills from my mother, and it seemed A had inherited them from me, but he certainly had his own spin.

“And there is also Birdman! I think he is my favorite one. He’s, like, a human guy who had some science stuff happen and now he is part bird! He has like human feet and huge wings so he can fly cause they are connected to his arms, and he has some feathers and skin both, and he can grow beaks and shoot them at the bad guys! Well, no one is the bad guy totally but he can shoot them at the guy he is fighting. He can shoot so many beaks!”

After a while, I got out a pen and paper and started making a list of the different monsters he was describing, making effort to spell them as he said them, as in the case of the ‘Abomiddle Snowman’, who “has so many muscles and fights best in cold places!”

A told me that he wanted 12 monsters total, and as we got farther down the list, I could tell he was making up creatures on the spot.

“I guess there should be maybe one girl monster, so there can be Hyper-Girl. She’s really funny looking and monstery, like part-monster, and she has crazy teeth, but she can shoot off some energy stuff from her eyes that makes people around her crazy because she is so hyper!”

As we finished the list, A grabbed a huge stack of paper and sat down at the table to begin designing the monsters. I wrote the names on top of each page, from Hoomanji to Hydro-Fire, and spent the next few hours carefully designing each one, using intricate detail in his 6-year old style. There was a “robot cube” monster, who looked like a cube but could transform into different shapes. There was “like a lobster monster except he is like a cyborg and can shoot stuff and stuff”. He designed a “demon that is also a snake” and a “ghost that can turn into not-a-ghost and fill the air with steam and that is the only time he can be attacked”.

When A wanted one of his characters, a “robot-barbarian with a big sword and a little sword” to be named “He-Man”, I told him that was already trade-marked. After he learned what a trademark was, he decided to change the name. “We can just call him ‘He-Guy’ then.”

A then came up with six different battlegrounds for the monsters to fight in, including a “lava jungle” and a “water desert,”, and he giggled as he wanted one silly battle-ground, calling the last one “Clifford’s playground”, as he looked at his toy version of the big, red dog himself.

Seeing his creations down on paper only energized A more. I found him baffling at time. He could sometimes struggle to get through a single short book, and he could barely focus long enough to put his own shoes on, sometimes taking as long as 6 or 7 minutes, but he could focus on a task like this for over 2 hours and not run out of energy. He asked me to assign him some mock battles, and I wrote a few out on paper, choosing two to fight and a battleground for them to fight in. He then assigned a few drawing assignments for me, and I worked extra hard to match the details of his creations in my art, to his utter joy. Soon, we pulled my 9-year old, J, and my boyfriend in on it, and we had a stack full of drawings of the different characters. Later, I made sure to spend one-on-one time with J, playing with toys and giving him plenty of attention. It’s always necessary to balance the dad scales so both boys feel loved.

Before bed that night, A gave me a huge hug. “Thanks for helping me with In Monster Life, daddy. Are you proud of me?”28168173_10160117274285061_1163685287753908127_n

“Buddy, I’m so proud of you. You have such a great brain. It’s always telling stories.”

“Yeah, just like yours.”

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Betty and Banana: raising very different kids

“I had a nightmare about princesses,” A, my six-year old son recently told me. He had a look of haunted exhaustion on his face, like if he heard one more word about princesses he might just give up on life completely.

A prefers monsters. Like the character Hagrid from Harry Potter, he finds the most ferocious creatures to the be the most worthy of his love. The more fangs, or claws, or poison sacs, or dragon wings, or spiky dinosaur ridges, or lava-spewing pustules the better. Lately, he’s had a particular affinity for the two-foot tall white-furred ferocious yeti that he received on his birthday. That day, he spent hours letting the yeti defeat each one of his super hero toys in turn, then the heroes returned for more rounds in greater numbers, yet the yeti stood triumphant in the end.

I recently came across a video of A when he was three. In it, he looks at the camera with his bright blue eyes while he lovingly pets the spiky back of a green T-Rex.

“His name is Terminus,” he says when I ask him. “He eats mommy snakes, baby snakes, and one spider.” When I ask him if Terminus has any friends, he tells me, “No. He ate all his friends.”

Terminus lined the toy shelf for years next to A’s other favorites, with names varying from Apples Juice to Ocean to Shrug. He always chose names out of the blue, but the names always stuck. But it wasn’t just dinosaurs, it was tigers, rhinos, trolls, ogres, snakes, dragons, and man-animal mutated hybrids of any kind. They soared and swooped through the house unendingly, A always perfecting their roars.

Yet A had nightmares of princesses. I read between the lines, hearing him say that he had nightmares of girl toys and girl things, anything less than roaring and horrid beasts that devoured anything before them. To him, princesses were sweet and pink and they sang songs and wanted to kiss boys, all terrible things that, to him, were much more frightening than a monster.

Yet A’s older brother, J, age 8, prefers princesses. Even as a baby, he reached for toys that would be considered more nurturing, like baby dolls, soft rabbits, and cute mice. More recently, he’s had a slight obsession with horses, and girls who ride them shooting arrows. He’s always been thrilled at the small and innocent being able to be the most powerful of all, saving the world against impossible odds and perhaps falling in love along the way.

Several months before, I had purchased him a collection of child versions of the Disney Princess toys, and, in order to make the set something the boys would play together, we endowed each princess with her own super power, so they could band together to form the Princess Patrol and fight evil. Belle was the leader and was super smart, Cinderella could make boys fall in love with her, Pocahontas was a natural hunter and tracker, Mulan knew kung-fu, Snow White could control animals, and Ariel was a super fast swimmer. There were 11 of them in all, and the boys took them on a myriad of adventures before the princesses, like every other toy for children these days, ended up on the bottom of the toy box because a new toy was receiving all of the attention.

My sons are being raised by a gay dad and a straight mom in two households, and we are a united front when it comes to parenting. Rather than enforcing any sort of gender or cultural norms, we have always let our sons just be themselves. We encourage kindness, fair play, honesty, teamwork, sharing, and listening, but we have never tried to change their interests. And for years now, their styles of play have melded together seamlessly, monsters fighting alongside princesses, instead of against each other. Just the other day, the giant yeti was helping to protect the little girl’s horse farm they had set up in the backyard, and all helped in the attacks against them. (I often play the villains).

Lately, I’ve been encouraging creative thinking and teamwork skills between my sons while embracing their individual play styles. I sat them before me, telling them they were going on an epic quest.

“You will be the Mystical Monkeys,” I told them. “Please select your names.”

J, excitedly wringing his hands, couldn’t pick one. “I, um, oh gosh, I don’t–um, I choose, um–”

“Speed it along, son.”

“Okay, I’m Betty!”

“And I’m Banana!” A followed.

And so the adventures of Betty and Banana, the Mystical Monkeys, began. They were each given one super power, passive powers I chose to encourage thinking. Betty was granted the power to change the color of anything, and Banana to turn invisible for a few seconds at a time. They retrieved a magic coconut from a treetop after fighting off an army of tarantulas (though A called them “try-ranch-ulas”) before swimming across a sea full of kissing mermaids. After a series of quests, Betty could then grow rabbit ears to jump high, and A developed a fire fist and a rock fist. They braved the Valley of the Stone Trolls, unscrambled the words to a magic spell, and entered a cave to answer riddles from a witch.

As they fell asleep, I contemplated their intersecting worlds. Dinosaurs and bunnies, super heroes and little girls, poisonous snakes and brave ponies. Betty and Banana. Their three baskets of toys overflowed, signs that they are well-loved and a bit spoiled, with both vampires and fairy queens, yet they both slept, breathing the same air heavily.

Every parent wants to give their child what they didn’t have. For me, that means raising my sons with a strong sense of identity, asking nothing more from them than to be exactly who they are and to know that they are loved.